The Lord Jesus is to be our example for how we are to live out our Christian lives. There is one major area where we often fail to follow Him. That area is described in Matthew 11:
17 “‘We played the pipe for you,
and you did not dance;
we sang a dirge,
and you did not mourn.’
18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ 19 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her deeds.”
Three charges were leveled at Jesus, according to His own testimony. He was accused of being a glutton, a wine bibber (over-indulging in drink), and “a friend of tax collectors and sinners.” In a court of law Jesus would have pled NOT GUILTY to the first two charges of gluttony and drunkenness. But to the third charge — being a friend of tax collectors and sinners — I believe He would have declared, “GUILTY! AND GLAD OF IT!”
We read in Matthew 9:13 that “the Son of Man did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” We have several occasions where Jesus spends time with tax collectors and sinners as evidence that their charge was correct. One passage that immediately comes to mind is Luke 15 and the story of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son. There we read, “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. 2 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” Jesus then specifically tells the stories of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son to illustrate the appropriateness of His welcoming sinners.
In my book DocWALK, I’ve written up my understanding of Luke 15 and it won’t hurt you a bit to read it now:
The late Dr. Francis Schaeffer put it this way: We Evangelicals, he said, “have in a real sense lost sense of the lostness of the lost.” Jesus drives home this lesson by using three examples of lostness in Luke 15.
In the parable of the lost sheep (vv. 3-7), the shepherd has a hundred sheep and one wanders off. He does not say, “Well, I’ve got ninety-nine others! Why bother myself about one stupid sheep?” He leaves the ninety-nine in the open country (perhaps putting them at risk in his determination to find the one missing sheep), and goes after the one lost sheep until he finds it. Upon finding it, “he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home” (vv. 5-6). He then throws a party and says, “Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep” (v. 6). Lostness provoked a pursuit which was followed by a party.
In the parable of the lost coin (vv. 8-10), the woman goes to a lot of trouble to find that one coin, lighting a lamp and sweeping the house until she finds it. And when it is found, she throws a party for her friends and neighbors, inviting them to “Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin” (v. 9). Lostness causes a search to take place, followed by a celebration.
In the most extensive parable of lostness, the parable of the lost son (vv. 11-32) contains many lessons about lostness. Whereas the coin could not be blamed for getting lost and none would think to get mad at a dumb sheep for wandering off, the story of the lost son shows premeditated abandonment of his place in the family. His moral culpability is revealed as he essentially says to his father, “As far as I’m concerned, you’re as good as dead. I would like my inheritance now – in tens and twenties – if you don’t mind.” Not only does he turn his back on his family, but he quickly departs town and systematically does all he can to debauch himself. His resources eventually run out, hunger sets in, and somehow he comes to his senses.
With a repentant heart he chooses to go back to his father, preparing a speech of contrition which he will deliver, a simple confession of twenty-eight words: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men” (vv. 18-19). Coins and sheep make no speeches; rebellious sons have the ability to come to their senses and come back to their father.
Like the lost coin and the lost sheep, the lost son is sought, only in this passage the father sees his son “a long way off ” and is “filled with compassion for him” (v. 20). In a cultural context in which the father would have been well within his rights to count his son as dead (much as the younger son had counted his father as good as dead, v. 12), this father showed no such animosity. Instead he “ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him” (v. 20). Such unguarded and undignified emotion must have embarrassed (and outraged) the Pharisees and teachers of the law as they listened to Jesus’ story.
The father allows the son time to deliver only eighteen of his twenty-eight word confessional: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son” (v. 21). The father then throws a big party. This son had probably hocked all his possessions, and the father immediately has the best robe put on him, a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. The fattened calf (perhaps one which had been selected and purposely well-fed in hopeful anticipation of this day) is brought out to be barbecued. “Let’s have a feast and celebrate. Pass the barbecue sauce!”, says the jubilant father. “For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found” (vv. 23-24).
But that’s not the end of the story. In fact, it seems to only be the introduction to Jesus’ primary point. Unlike the story of the lost coin and the lost sheep where the accounts conclude with a party, the story of the lost son switches gears and focuses our attention on someone else: the older brother. We learned nothing of him at the beginning of the story when the younger son abandoned the family, only that there were two sons and the younger decided to leave. We do not read that the older brother strikes up a search party to go to the “distant country” to find his younger sibling (maybe he was glad he was gone). Nor do we find him next to his father, looking down the road when the younger brother walks home barefoot and destitute. And when the party gets going in earnest, the older brother is not looking over the shoulder of the caterer to make sure things are in order; he is in the field working. He hears the music and dancing and has to ask what the celebration is all about. A servant informs him that his younger brother is back home, safe and sound, and that their father has fired up the grill. Apparently he was not specifically invited to the party, or the father simply assumed the older brother would, of course, join in the festivities, or the father knew that the older brother did not care to hear and celebrate the good news.
Instead of joining the party, the older brother gets mad and boycotts the festivities. When the father goes out to plead with him, the older brother shockingly rebukes his father, then begins to list all his own acts of faithfulness and obedience. He complains that he never got such a barbecue thrown in his honor, not so much as even a young goat! “But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!” (v. 30), he says. In other words, he tells his father that not only has the father not shown appropriate appreciation for the older brother’s faithfulness, but he is going way overboard in his celebrations for the reprobate younger brother. And he reminds his father of his younger brother’s abominable conduct: squandering the father’s property with prostitutes! The older brother does not only feel slighted and taken for granted, he is repulsed by his father’s extravagant excitement about the squanderer’s return home. Such action on the father’s part, in the opinion of the older son, is a moral and religious outrage! Interestingly, the older brother does not refer to the prodigal as “my brother,” but as “this son of yours” (v. 30).
However, the older brother does not get the last word. The father who has temporarily left the party which he was throwing for his recovered son says, “My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found” (vv. 31-32). The father is indicating that the older brother’s problem is not what the father did not give him, but what the father graciously gave the repentant “squanderer.”6 The father indicates that the only appropriate response to the younger brother’s return was to throw a huge party. “We had to celebrate and be glad!” In a bit of a dig the father reminds the older brother that “this brother of yours” was dead and is alive again. He “was lost and is found.”
Although it is generally true that a parable has one primary point, and we need to be careful not to make a parable into an allegory by finding spiritual meaning in every detail, this third story of lostness certainly has at least two points. The first is the eagerness of the father for the return of the lost son. The second is the callousness of the older brother who not only refused to join the party, but felt he needed to set his father straight as to the inappropriateness that such a celebration should be held at all.
Both the story of the lost sheep and the story of the lost coin conclude with similar words. Regarding the lost sheep we read, “There will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent” (v. 7). Concerning the lost coin we are told, “In the same way, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (v. 10). No such expression is found at the conclusion of the story of the lost son, because the story is about a sinner who repents – and shows the absolute inappropriateness of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who were muttering against Jesus, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them” (v. 2).
When God says “Party!”, we’d better party! Like the shepherd, the owner of the coin, and the prodigal son’s father, God does not delight in lostness. He wants lost things and lost people found!
My mother-in-law, whom I love dearly, is the most organized person I know. She can perfectly tell you exactly what is in her walk-in closet, down to the last shoebox. While I don’t think her condition is pathological, I do sometimes kid her and say, “You know, Mom, you never experience the joy of finding something that was lost – because you know where everything you own is. That’s a sad way to live your life!” She laughs at me, and then changes the subject.
God delights in finding that which is lost, and the Good News of the Gospel is that you’ve been rescued from your lostness. God is holding a party in heaven because He just “had to celebrate and be glad” (Luke 15:32) because you came home!
One could ask a question of the older brother, “Who was really the ‘lost’ son?” The younger brother who abandoned his family and squandered his father’s wealth, or the older brother whose “faithfulness” to his father made him callous, uncaring, self-righteous, and unwilling to join the party? Who was the real prodigal – the one who left (and came back) or the one who stayed, thinking he had no reason to repent, and in the process lost his heart? (to be continued)